On Wednesday, PublicCEO alerted our readers to a report by NPR examining the benefits and downsides to shared service agreements between local agencies. San Jose Political Science Professor and NBC political correspondent Larry Gerston writes in to discuss the cost-saving potential of consolidating services.
While we point fingers at the national and state governments for bloated, costly bureaucratic waste, the biggest abuses take place at the local level.
Think about it—within our 58 counties lie 480 cities, 1,000 school districts, and 5,000 special districts.
Each of these has its own governing system and attendant bureaucracy—whether in the form of police chief, fire chief, school district superintendent, or water district CEO, to name a few.
Within their respective categories, the various entities offer duplicative services even though many are adjacent to one another.
This might have worked one hundred years ago when people traveled long distances from town to town via horse and buggy. But in largely urban California, city borders are hard to find without a sign, and the ball fields from various school districts are sometimes within a stone’s throw of each other.
Often it’s closer for a police officer or fire truck to respond to a problem in another city than one within their own jurisdiction.
Some examples. Urban Santa Clara County has 34 school districts, 12 police departments, and 11 fire departments. For the most part, one can go from one end of the county to another in about an hour.
In Los Angeles County, 88 cities operate with 45 different police departments and the Sheriff’s Department. The county also contains 79 school districts, four of which lie in the city of Whittier.
Probably the most bizarre example of waste lies with the City of Vernon, which has 53 officers for 112 residents and is completely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles.
And why do the city and county of San Francisco need a police chief and a sheriff?
Bear in mind each of these entities has someone in charge (and numerous assistants) and equipment that could easily be shared with an adjoining jurisdiction.
And as these fiefdoms thrive at the top, these same entities cope with budget shortfalls by laying off badly needed teachers, police officers and firefighters.
This is a poor use of resources.
There is a simple way out of this inefficient model of “governance”: mergers with nearby organizations that provide the same services. Imagine if Whittier consolidated its four school districts into one, or if Alhambra and Monterey Park–adjacent to each each other–merged their fire departments.
These governments are practically on top of each other and with services easily accessible to their constituents.
Some jurisdictions have begun to see the light. In San Mateo County, three cities have merged either fire or police departments with county counterparts, saving millions of dollars in the process.
Service levels haven’t dropped a bit and the local governments now have funds to provide other badly needed services.
Of course, not all jurisdictions should merge. Los Angeles Unified School District is hardly in a position to merge with anyone. In fact, some have argued that it should be divided. But there are few service districts the size of LAUSD.
So what keeps this common sense approach to governance from occurring on a widespread basis? Parochialism.
Most people want the sense of connection with their small fire district, local police force, or little school district where their kids can be a stone’s throw from home.
Fair enough, but we should remember the huge price we are paying for that false sense of security.
Obviously, mergers should occur with care. Communities with similar demographics and proximity should be the first to look to each other for savings, while promoting continuity.
And the new governing districts should be kept to a reasonable size.
Maybe this sounds like heresy. But the next time you hear that your school district and those around you are laying off teachers in already crowded classrooms, just remember that each of those districts has a highly paid superintendent, a couple of deputy superintendents, underutilized specialists, and equipment that could easily be shared. Ditto for police departments and fire departments.
Surely there’s a better way to spend precious resources.
Consolidation of services is but one example included in Gerston’s book, Not So Golden After All: the Rise and Fall of California.